While the term ‘Winter is Coming’ is certainly associated with the fictional world and characters of George R.R. Martin’s hit HBO show Game of Thrones, the same cannot be said for Dubrovnik (King’s Landing), capital of Westeros which serves as a central film shoot site for the famed series. In fact, thanks to Game of Thrones, an increased interest in Dubrovnik and Croatia among foreign film productions and tourists alike has many believing it may be summer all year long as far as Croatian tourism data is concerned.
This of course raises the question many in the country are increasingly asking, ‘when will it end?’ The answer is probably not any time soon. Part of the issue stems from the fact that while Game of Thrones and other well-known productions have definitely increased the state’s coffers, they are also indirectly responsible for quadrupling tourism numbers in a country with less than four million people which is already bursting at the infrastructure seams.
2017 has been an impressive year for Croatian tourism with the country out-ranking Portugal and neck-in-neck with Greece as Europe’s third most popular holiday destination by choice.
This image was further cemented by The New York Times naming Croatia the destination of the year for 2017, thereby ensuring that Americans, the most difficult tourist market to break into would flock to the Dalmatian shore in droves, and if early numbers are any indicators, this is exactly what has happened. This in turn drives demand and hype and has many in the country pondering (and capitalizing) a phenomenon the likes of which they have never seen before. Thus, like Daenerys’ dragons, Game of Thrones tourism has acquired a cult-like Mecca persona that is almost impossible to control, let alone predict.
Filming in the city centre has its own challenges
While it can be said that the series has single-handedly done for Croatian tourism what the Lord of the Rings franchise did for New Zealand, the positive and negative aspects of this are mostly being felt by the locals. I’ve been reporting on Game of Thrones for the past few years and can genuinely state that the summer of 2017 has been the most spectacular tourism year thus far and has surpassed anything that those of my generation can recall.
The Game of Thrones effect
Anyone you speak to will tell you it’s as if the entire universe has converged on Croatia this year, along with their grandmother, sister, aunt and postman. If I had a dime for every tourist I’ve met at Dubrovnik airport, ferry terminal, bus station or the main strip who tells me they are visiting the city primarily because of Game of Thrones, I’d surely be a millionaire by now, possibly even one in the double digits. It’s gone so far that the effects have spilled beyond the city’s limits and are now being felt in Split (film site for scenes shot depicting Valyria, Essos, Mereen) and further up the coast in the city of Šibenik which is the main stand in for Bravos.
I can only imagine what this type of mass fan-franchise-following tourism is doing for the city coffers as well as the states. We’ll know those numbers when the tourism season officially ends the first week of October, but the figures for April and May of 2017 alone already outpaced the entire tourist season of 2015. If the estimates of the Croatian National Tourist Board are to be believed, the country will experience an unprecedented 21 million tourists this year, which is unbelievable considering the entire population of Croatia is smaller than that of Kentucky.
The downside to all of this is that the city of Dubrovnik, indeed the country itself, is literally bursting at the seams. This summer will be noted for standing out in terms of record shortages of workers in the tourism and service sectors, which are vital if Croatia is to meet the sort of month over month demand foreign guests and visitors are creating.
Has Dubrovnik handled the extar attention correctly? - Photo Niksa Duper
I can recall certain days in the past few weeks when leaving my house in Dubrovnik was out of the question. Friends would text to tell me that Pile Gate was over-crowded with tourists lining up to enter the old town at the exact same moment that 2 to 3 cruise ships were about to disembark, dumping another 25,000 people into a city whose medieval cobble-stoned streets were built for half that foot traffic. Add to this scenario some of the hottest temperatures in South-East Europe on record, and you can well imagine the local frustration at what mass tourism, bolstered by crazed fans has done to the city and its surroundings. August 2017 numbers have ballooned to the point that the newly elected Mayor of Dubrovnik, Mato Franković, recently told city council that plans are underway to cap the number of visitors scaling the city’s medieval walls to just 4,000 a day (half the number suggested by UNESCO). All of this is being done to prevent overcrowding and congestion which has become a massive problem in recent years.
Cruise ship boom goes hand in hand with film tourism - Photo Tonci Plazibat
It wasn’t always like this. Although Dubrovnik has always been a popular tourist destination among our neighbours and fellow Europeans, it’s popularity has soared ten-fold since HBO launched Game of Thrones in 2011. With Dubrovnik acting as the doppelgänger for King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros, the city has become one of the key stops for Americans, Aussies, Canadians and others engaging in the ‘GOT’ tour (next in popularity on this path is Iceland which is experiencing all the same issues as Croatia).
Walk of Shame in Game of Thrones T-shirt
As a result, Game of Thrones tours which were all but unheard of a mere five years ago, are now popping up all over the place, as are Game of Thrones themed gift stores (including the official HBO endorsed one right off the Stradun), and a visit to the Iron Throne situated on Lokrum island (considered another ‘must’). Social media alone has played its part in amplifying the likes, shares and visits, ensuring that the capital of Westeros has become THE place to visit in 2017, and I have met plenty of folks who have proudly stopped me on the streets of Stradun begging for their photo to be taken in the heart of King’s Landing (that’s right, I had to actually remind them it’s called Dubrovnik…sigh) or at the top of the Jesuit Stairs while they engage in their own Walk of Shame (some even armed with a toll bell in hand).
All of this will hopefully change next year following City Council’s plans to exercise some control over a situation which, if left untreated, locals fear could turn out to be worse than the Doom of Valyria (no pun intended!). Mayor Franković, who was elected in June, recently stated that his two-year plan will undoubtedly hurt the local economy in the short term, but will offer long-term protection for Dubrovnik and the surrounding area. Previous estimates have shown that Game of Thrones was responsible for around half of the 10% annual growth in tourists that Dubrovnik has seen in recent years. I’d be surprised if that number hasn’t surpassed 30% as of this summer.
Of course, the benefits of this tourism boom shouldn’t be discounted because this influx came at a very difficult time for the Croatian economy. While the country and its citizens are certainly grateful for the boomerang effect the GOT series has created, not only in enticing tourists from countries whose citizens may not have previously visited, but also for luring production crews of other well-known film and TV franchises to shoot on its premises – what we all want is more accountability and balance.
Thus, what tourists and locals can all agree on is that Dubrovnik - and Croatia, require a long-term strategy to deal with the increased demand before the situation spirals out of control faster than Cersei Lannister on the Iron Throne. And here’s hoping that our private Westeros gains as much insight from this tourist season as it can so that it’s well prepared for the next one.
Text - Mirella-Marie Katarina Radman